If your in-law’s name smells of grass

Taboos are a popular topic among readers of this blog, for understandable reasons. They give insight into people’s beliefs, as in the case of night-time taboos that can be found all over Africa, including Mali and South Sudan, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. Or they illustrate the rules that guide social interaction, as is often the case in naming conventions. In any case, how speakers replace words that can’t be uttered in certain situations testifies of their linguistic creativity. Additionally, and that’s an important bonus for linguists, avoidance strategies also offer access to how speakers perceive similarity between words.

Today, I turn to a language that has a fairly developed system of avoidance words, often called an avoidance register by linguists. The language in question is the Tanzanian Nilotic language Datooga. Datooga-speaking women face a special task once they are married: they are not allowed to pronounce the names of most of their male in-laws. Not a big deal, you may think, but the taboo goes further: not only are the names themselves not permissible, but also any word that resembles them. So, if your father-in-law’s name is Gídámúlda (gídá meaning ‘male’), you must avoid all words beginning with mul – in consequence, words such as múlòoda ‘log’ or múlmúlánèeeda ‘thin metal bracelet’ are off limits.

No female speaker of Datooga masters the entire avoidance register. This is because extended families live together in compounds, and co-wives of a husband and sisters-in-law share the same male relatives. Consequently, they only need to avoid those words that resemble their limited set of names. This is a probably a blessing, since Datooga names are freely descriptive: people can be named after landmarks such as lakes, rivers, fires, after noteworthy events, or after characteristics of their birth year, etc. So imagine your in-law’s name ‘smells’ – this is how similar-sounding words are described in the language – of grass, nyéega. You can avoid this taboo word by referring to a particular type of grass, ng’àróojiga. Many taboo replacements work this way, by substituting a word with a semantically related one. The versatility entailed by constantly having to think up lexical alternatives (for married women) and interpret them correctly (everybody else) must make Datooga speakers extremely good at crosswords!

Remarkably, there is one context in which Datooga women are allowed to pronounce the name of their husbands’ ancestors: when they are in labour. Apparently, enraging their spirits will wake them up and so incite them to help in childbirth.

Read more on Datooga women’s dynamic avoidance practices here:

Mitchell, Alice (2016): Words That Smell like Father-in-Law. A Linguistic Description of the Datooga Avoidance Register. In Anthropological Linguistics 57 (2), pp. 195–217. DOI: 10.1353/anl.2016.0004.

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